New Arm chip to stretch from smartphones to servers

The chip design company hopes to expand beyond smartphones and into routers and servers

Arm Holdings has taken the wraps off its next major chip design, promising a five-fold increase in performance that the company hopes will take it beyond smartphones and into new types of equipment such as high-performance routers and servers.

Arm's top executives launched the Cortex-A15 MPCore at a press conference in San Francisco Wednesday evening. The name is supposed to reflect how much of an advance the chip represents -- Arm's current designs are the Cortex-A8 and the Cortex-A9.

"This is a huge day for us," said Eric Schorn, Arm's vice president of marketing. "Today is the biggest thing that has happened to Arm, period."

Arm chips are used in most of today's smartphones, including the iPhone and Android-based devices. They are also found in printers, hard disk drives and a myriad of other electronics products. Arm creates the designs for the chips, which are then licensed and manufactured by companies such as Texas Instruments and Samsung.

The A15 is still a long way from shipping in products. In fact, even its predecessor, the Cortex-A9, isn't expected to appear until the end of this year. Smartphones and other devices using the A15 will go on sale toward the end of 2012, Schorn said.

But that's not stopping Arm from making some big claims now. It says the A15 will offer five times the performance of the fastest Arm chip on the market today, a dual-core Cortex-A8 running at 1GHz. The A15 will be used to build chips with two, four, eight and possibly 16 processor cores, each running at up to 2.5GHz, Schorn said.

Smartphones will require only single and dual-core processors, but Arm hopes more powerful versions of the A15 will open up new markets for its chips. It's eyeing tablet PCs and home media servers in the consumer space, and wireless base stations, high-end routers and servers in the enterprise.

It hopes the low-power characteristics that Arm chips are known for will persuade device manufacturers to use the A15 in new products. It's not saying yet how much power it will draw, however, only that the A15 will have a "comparable energy footprint" to its current designs.

The A15 marks "a big leap forward" for Arm, said industry analyst Nathan Brookwood, of Insight64. "Clearly this chip was architected to handle tasks that were beyond the capabilities of the current design," he said.

It will be able to run virtualized operating systems, which could allow smartphone users to switch between two operating environments, one for home use and one for work, for example. It could also make it easier for operators and application developers to update their software in the field, without having to work with device manufacturers.

The A15 will also support up to 1TB of physical memory, up from 4GB today. That, combined with the virtualization, could make it a more viable option for certain types of server. The chips may not be powerful enough for consolidating workloads, but virtualization can have other uses, such as allowing a workload to fail over to a different server.

However, there is at least one drawback that will limit the A15's use in servers, Brookwood said: It is still a 32-bit processor design.

"It's not 64-bit, so they are in that awkward stage where they can have a terabyte of memory, but anyone who wants to access all that memory is going to have to go through all sorts of complicated gyrations in order to do so," Brookwood said.

"That's where the x86 world was before AMD came along with the Opteron. I would anticipate that some time in the next couple of years we'll see Arm follow that same path and offer a 64-bit version," he said.

Still, the A15 could be suitable for edge-of-network applications, especially those with high levels of parallelism, Schorn said. That could include serving Web pages or running search and social networking applications.

"For many of these types of applications, the performance of a Xeon or an Opteron is overkill," Brookwood said, "which is one reason why companies like SeaMicro are building Atom-based servers. It wouldn't surprise me if one day the folks at SeaMicro adapted what they are doing to Arm."

In the past, Arm has had mixed results breaking into new markets. It tried to challenge Intel in netbooks, but Arm-based chips don't run Windows, which turned out to be the preferred OS for those devices. Thus most netbooks are still based on Intel Atom processors.

Schorn argued that infrastructure equipment such as routers and servers presents more of an opportunity, because those products don't have to run such a wide variety of software. "On the server side, there's Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl -- there's a much smaller set of software components. They're more manageable and more portable," he said.

And there are many types of servers to aim at. "If you look at print servers and media servers, more consumer or edge-of-network type products, those are some of the earlier targets that are more viable," he said. "We're just beginning this journey."

The high core count of the A15 is enabled by an Arm technology called Amba 4, an on-chip bus interface that allows clusters of four processor cores to be linked together. It also helps the chip maintain coherency, ensuring the cores all working with consistent sets of data.

The A15 will be manufactured using 32- and 28-nanometer manufacturing processes. Arm announced Wednesday that TI, Samsung and ST Ericsson have licensed the new design.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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